If you like your westerns to feature a handful of Hollywood stars, to be loaded with gunplay, and to toss in a few beautiful women among the bullets, the Robert Aldrich directed 1954 film Vera Cruz is a pretty good choice. The film stars Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster as Americans who have made their way to Mexico to fight as mercenaries for whichever side will pay them better in the Franco-Mexican War.
Lancaster is Joe Erin, a tough man who is alone even in the midst of the thugs he commands. Cooper is Benjamin Trane, a Southern gentleman who was a colonel on the losing side in the Civil War and who now is doing everything he can to earn enough to restore his plantation. When Trane’s horse gets injured, the two men find themselves thrown together. The uneasy alliance continues when the men are offered positions by both armies.
As mercenaries do, Trane and Erin opt to go with those who will pay them better, in this case that is the Emperor Maximillian (George Macready) and his Marquis, Henri de Labordere (Cesar Romero). Tasked with transporting a Countess (Denise Darcel) to Vera Cruz with the army, both men realize that there is in fact far more at stake than ensuring the safety of their charge and that is when the fun really starts in the movie. While the introduction of the characters is a deft mix of humor and seriousness (one which continues throughout), it is when the countess appears that the backstabbing truly sets in and Vera Cruz excels.
From the moment Trane and Erin meet, it is abundantly clear that the film is going to end with a showdown between the two men (it is also abundantly clear who will win that showdown). It really is just a question of whether the fight will be about money, a woman, a horse, or an ideal. However, even if the conclusion is clear, the journey is an excellent one. Trane and Erin make fine—if only momentary—companions, men thrust together out of requirement rather than ideal.
Erin’s sort of people are the squad of goons which he commands, including Ernest Borgnine’s Donnegan and Charles Bronson’s Pittsburgh. Unscrupulous and wholly unsavory men, Erin and his crew want money for money’s sake (or perhaps for pleasure’s sake), whereas Trane, even if he must throw in with a bad lot, has loftier goals.
Vera Cruz is really just a simple good versus evil tale, one which is complicated somewhat by women who are not necessarily what they seem. Outside of the Countess, there is also the lovely Nina (Sarita Montiel), who just happens to keep showing up wherever Trane and Erin head. Whether she works for the rebels, led by General Ramirez (Morris Ankrum) or is a freelance thief, from the moment she is introduced in the film it is clear that we’ll be seeing her repeatedly.
Over the course of the swift 94 minute runtime, Vera Cruz finds plenty of time for backstabbing, reversals, discussions of ideals, and a whole lot of gunplay. It truly is a brisk movie, one which never lingers anywhere for too long a period and one which doesn’t feel the need to pound the audience over the head with who is right and who is wrong. The screenplay by Roland Kibbee and James R. Webb (based on a story by Borden Chase), unquestionably makes it clear who is right and who is wrong, but there isn’t a whole lot of speechifying to offer up that answer; there certainly is some, but it is never overblown and never becomes dull.
Shot on location in Mexico, Vera Cruz features some utterly fantastic location scenes, things one would never get on a Hollywood back lot. There are also an incredible number of extras in the film who form a part of the General’s army. These two elements add some grandeur and spectacle to what otherwise might be a relatively small tale.
MGM’s new Blu-ray release of the film maintains their current standard of minimalist releases. There is again no menu present, and save for a theatrical trailer, there are no special features either. I hate to beat a dead horse with this lack of a menu decision, but it really is to the detriment of any release to not give it even the most bare bones, wholly static, disc menu.
On the technical side of things, there are three distinct types of visuals offered in the movie. Close-ups (and some of the wider shots) tend to look excellent, with loads of details and bright, full colors. There is a noticeable flicker present nearly all the time; as are scratches, dirt, and other imperfections; but in the shots that have been given the full treatment, these deficiencies are forgivable, especially for a movie of Vera Cruz‘s age. There are also shots which appear to have had a lot of work done to pretty them up, though not as much as the close-ups. Here, the colors are not quite as rich, the detail not quite as great, and grain & dirt are more prevalent. Then, there are a handful of shots which look downright dismal, where colors are completely washed out and the amount of grain tremendous (happily these are few and far between, but they certainly are present). The soundtrack is a mono DTS-HD Master Audio track and is certainly good enough to get the job done. Gunfire may be mixed somewhat too loud in comparison to the dialogue, but the dialogue is still clear and distinct. The score comes through perfectly as well. This is unquestionably not a film which is going to wow you in terms of its restoration, but there isn’t a ton to be disappointed about either.
Vera Cruz is really a pretty good western, one with excellent performances by the leading men, great scenery, and a fun—if obvious—plot. It is not a movie which reinvents the wheel by any stretch, but it is a movie which rolls along at a fair clip and makes for a good hour-and-a-half of enjoyment.